Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Yellow Submarine

It barely makes sense to talk about this album as a coherent entity. It was supposed to be an EP consisting of the four new tracks, but the American market demanded a full album, so it was padded with the title track and ‘All You Need Is Love’ on one side and George Martin’s orchestral score on the other. (This did at least mean that the album had mostly new music on it – another route might have been to combine the four new songs with nine or ten others from the film that most Beatles fans would own already.) It was the only Beatles album I never bought before getting the boxset: I knew the tracks incredibly well anyway, as my schoolfriends and I went through a phase of watching the film every time we got stoned. (I still love the film, and recently it became the second movie my three-year-old son had ever seen – one of the joys of being a Beatles fan is the huge range of ephemera, which enable you to come at the group from so many different angles.)

But most of all, the recording of these tracks was so disparate. Accumulated over the course of a year, they have nothing to unite them, no direct relevance to the Yellow Submarine concept. The result is like looking through the back door of Abbey Road during the making of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour – the paths they didn’t take during this period.

‘Only A Northern Song’ was supposed to be Harrison’s other track on Sgt. Pepper but was dropped for not being good enough. Harrison was the Beatle whose songs were least suited to a project like Yellow Submarine – he was the most abstract songwriter in the group, tending to write about his ideas and views. Lennon was a more ‘visual’ songwriter and McCartney made more use of character and narrative, both of which worked much better in this context. Notably, the only two songs of Harrison’s to feature prominently in the film are both ones which the filmmakers had no option other than to use, since a major selling point was that the film featured new Beatles songs and they had to use the exclusive songs they’d been given. I like ‘Only A Northern Song’ quite a lot, but the filmmakers must have been nonplussed to receive a sour rant about Harrison’s publishing contract set to music, with no visual hooks at all. The sequence they came up with is great, but has no narrative content or relevance to the lyrics.

‘It’s All Too Much’, apparently written by Harrison in an uncharacteristic fit of exuberance at the wonder of the world (must’ve been the drugs), slots into the end sequence of the film very well. It’s also an interesting example of The Beatles’ facility for picking up and dropping styles. Apparently intended for Magical Mystery Tour, it’s The Beatles attempting a full-on psychedelic wig-out with feedback, layers of sound and an extended outro. Having flung it out to Yellow Submarine, they then never recorded anything like it again. (It does however seem to be the model for Oasis’ entire Be Here Now album.)

‘All Together Now’ was recorded before the release of Sgt. Pepper but never found a home, and probably later struck McCartney as being good fodder for a cartoon: it also struck me as a great opener for a playlist of Beatles songs aimed at kids, which I’ll share with you at some point. (It’s also interesting as a jolly summer-of-love preview of the weirder, more sinister childlike songs on The Beatles.) The only one which may have been written with the soundtrack in mind was ‘Hey Bulldog’, purely because it must have been submitted for use at the last minute: Mark Lewisohn states that it replaced ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’ as the final new track for the film. (It did emerge very late in the day – the concept for the ‘Lady Madonna’ video was to show them at work in the studio, but rather than mime to the already-recorded single, they decided to record something new and let the cameras film that. The footage, since re-edited, makes a better video for ‘Hey Bulldog’ itself, since that’s what they were actually playing.)

‘Hey Bulldog’ has become a minor Beatles classic, and is the only track from Yellow Submarine to genuinely point to where the group was going next: less whimsical, more focused around guitars/bass/drums/piano, with a harder edge. It has a rawness and menace that hadn’t been heard since ‘Money’ on Beatles For Sale. The other tracks were already relics from the group’s psychedelic phase: the lag time of an animated film had no chance of keeping up with The Beatles’ restless creativity.


  1. My favourite fact about "Hey Bulldog" is McCartney surreptitiously improving the lyrics by pretending to have misread Lennon's handwriting. Thumbsaloftamongus!

  2. Did you know that 'Only A Northern Song' was John Peel's favorite Beatles song? Apparently at the time he thought it pointed the way forward for them and was disappointed later when it so clearly didn't. Can't quite see what he saw in it myself. But then I never got what he saw in Napalm Death either.